"This is the second time in my life that I have cried. The first time I cried was when my mother died." Maestro Herbert von Karajan is said to have come on stage with tears in his eyes after the 1963 Milan premiere of Puccini’s La Bohème to congratulate his Mimi, Mirella Freni, with these words.
The Modena-born singer had already attracted attention in Italy as well as at the Holland and Glyndebourne festivals, but it was the triumphant La Bohème performances in Milan and later Vienna that launched Freni’s international fame. At the same time, the singer had found her signature role: for over 35 years, she would offer moving interpretations of the little seamstress that were also characterized by their technical mastery and captivating sound.
Her voice, with its unmistakable timbre, never showed signs of fatigue, even after transitioning from many years in the lyric repertoire to the more dramatic roles of Italian verismo, and even Russian parts, in the 1990s. In view of the longevity of her voice that extended over many decades, people have often raved, with good reason, about the "miracle Freni."
1955 debut in her hometown theater as Micaela in "Carmen"
In her signature role of Mimi in "La Bohème", debuts in Vienna (1963), Chicago and New York (1965), and Philadelphia (1966); she sang the role as late as 1996 in Turin during gala performances commemorating the 100th anniversary of the premiere
At the beginning of her career, also appeared in bel canto roles of Bellini and Donizetti; later celebrated above all as Mimi, Susanna ("Le nozze di Figaro"), Desdemona ("Otello"), and Elisabetta ("Don Carlo"), before also singing the title roles in "Adriana Lecouvreur" and "Fedora" as well as Tatiana ("Eugene Onegin") and Lisa ("The Queen of Spades") during the later stages of her career
Guest appearances on the world’s major stages, including the Vienna State Opera and Salzburg Festival
Performs in Salzburg under Herbert von Karajan in "Carmen", "Don Giovanni", "Otello", "Le nozze di Figaro", "Don Carlos", "Aida", and Verdi’s Requiem
First marriage to conductor Leone Magiera, second marriage to bass Nicolai Ghiaurov
A sought-after teacher since retiring from the stage
Did you know?
Legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti was born in the same year and place as Freni; childhood friends, they later often appeared as stage partners, particularly in Puccini’s "La Bohème"
Freni already took part in a radio competition at the age of ten; however, veteran tenor Beniamino Gigli advised her to wait before starting her vocal training
For many years, Freni was a favorite singer of Herbert von Karajan; however, when the maestro wanted to cast her in the title role of "Turandot" and as Leonora in "Il Trovatore", she turned them down as too dramatic
Freni made two studio recordings of Puccini’s "Madama Butterfly" and sang the role once in a film production, but never performed it on stage, fearing the character’s intense emotionality
Freni also recorded "Tosca" and the three female roles in Puccini’s "Trittico", but never interpreted them on stage in their entirety
She developed her much-admired vocal technique on her own; while still young, she wanted to find out how to sing in a way that went beyond mere instinct: "I truly listened within myself and found my technique!"
Bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, Freni’s second husband, described his wife as a Slav who only happened to be born in Italy
Freni retired from the stage at the age of seventy – with her final new role: as "The Maid of Orleans" in the opera by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Final concert appearance the same year in a Gala at New York’s Metropolitan Opera – celebrating her 50th anniversary as a singer and 40 years at the Met.